When the sinner’s prayer doesn’t work.

Wait, it doesn’t work? Well, sometimes we do it wrong.

Imagine you shared Jesus with someone. (Hope you are sharing Jesus with people. But anyway.)

Imagine they responded well: They expressed an interest in this Jesus whom you speak of. They believed you when you told ’em Jesus could save them. They wanted to become a Christian right there and then. So you said the sinner’s prayer with them. They recited all the words right after you. They felt happy about it. You felt happy about it. And there was much rejoicing. Yea!

Now imagine it’s a year later and you meet up with that person again. And you find their life hasn’t changed. At all.

They aren’t going to church; they don’t see the point. They aren’t reading the bible; they don’t see the point. They don’t pray; no more than usual, which is the occasional “God, get me out of this and I promise I’ll [offering they never intend to follow through on],” and nothing more. Not even religious feelings, which I admit are usually self-manufactured, but they don’t even have that.

No fruit of the Spirit. They’re not any happier, any more joyful. They’re as impatient as ever, as unkind as ever, and don’t know the difference between love and romance or passion or covetousness. Nothing.

Sinner’s prayer didn’t take.

When Christians haven’t had this experience before, it horrifies them. This person said the sinner’s prayer! It was supposed to work! They called upon Jesus to become their Lord, and take control of their lives! Why didn’t he? I mean, if I were the Holy Spirit, I’d have stepped right in there and unilaterally changed a whole lot of stuff about ’em. Reprogrammed their brain so they’d be happier and more obedient, knocked all the temptations out of their paths, shouted at ’em nice and loud whenever they were about to sin, “DONT.” Wouldn’t that be loving of me?

Well, mighty Calvinist of you. But not all that loving. Love is patient; 1Co 13.4 love doesn’t seek its own way; 1Co 13.5 and God is love. 1Jn 4.16 God might transform a person who has no interest in transformation, but usually he doesn’t care to. He prefers to reward those who earnestly seek him, He 11.6 not those who only turned to Jesus to escape hell, but have no interest in becoming any different than before.

On such people, the sinner’s prayer doesn’t work. It’s a prayer of surrender, and they didn’t surrender.

It’s not a magic spell.

I know you know the sinner’s prayer isn’t a magic spell. But sometimes evangelists forget this.

Too many Christians treat it as one: Say the sinner’s prayer and presto-chango you’re saved. Always works. Some of ’em, I kid you not, claim it works even if you never really meant it! Because God means it. He heard you say the words, he heard you swear to follow him, he holds us to our oaths, and therefore he follows through and saves us. These folks even have amusing anecdotes: They hear tell of someone who said the sinner’s prayer and didn’t mean it, yet because God meant it, these unrepentant converts found themselves no longer enjoying any of their favorite old sins, and growing the Spirit’s fruit in spite of themselves. How ’bout that testimony, eh?

Meh. Here’s the problem with this interpretation: It presumes God obligated himself to do anything when a hypocrite says the sinner’s prayer. Has he? Nope.

“But if you confess Jesus, you’ll be saved.” Ro 10.9 Okay, let’s stop half-quoting that passage and read it in its entirety:

Romans 10.8-13 KWL
8 Instead what it says is, “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your mind.” Dt 30.14
This is the word of faith, which we proclaim:
9 When you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,”
and trust with your mind God raised him from the dead, you’ll be saved.
10 You trust him—leading to justification—with the mind.
You confess him—leading to salvation—with the mouth.
11 The scripture says, “All who trust him won’t be ashamed.” Is 28.16
12 No distinction between Jew and Greek: He’s Lord of all.
He has riches for all who call upon him.
13 “All who call the Lord’s name will be saved.” Jl 2.32

Notice there’s a trust component to this calling-upon-God thingy. If we don’t trust him, if we say the sinner’s prayer without any faith behind it, God doesn’t consider us right with him. Faith makes us right. Ro 5.1 Faithless sinner’s prayers make us wrong. Is God gonna do anything with such a prayer? Well, he’ll hold people to the oaths they made… but without any justification by faith, our meaningless oaths only contribute to our destruction.

Yikes. So much for the magic.

It’s not proof of salvation.

When I was a kid, I and my fellow Sunday school chums sometimes wondered whether we were really saved. I was mostly sure I was. Jesus was definitely in my heart somewhere. I could feel him knocking around quite vigorously after that third Sunday morning jelly doughnut. Even so, kids doubt, ’cause Sunday school teachers like to sow doubt. “Are you sure you’re saved? Really sure? If you’re not sure you’re saved, come forward and we’ll get you saved.” Thus they could report 30 salvations every week, even though we were all the very same 40 kids.

How could we be sure we were saved? Simple, they claimed: When’d you say the sinner’s prayer? ’Cause the day you said the sinner’s prayer, Jesus climbed into your heart, and that’s your “spiritual birthday.” That’s the day you were born again. Jn 3.3 Do you know your spiritual birthdate? You really should have it written down somewhere, like in your bible. (I actually don’t know my own spiritual birthdate. It’s somewhere in June 1976.)

So whenever we kids doubted our salvation, we were meant to get out our bibles, flip to the page where we wrote down we made a formal profession of Christ, check out the date, and know in our “knower” that we’d been saved. We had a spiritual birthday. Devil, don’t you tempt me with not knowing I’ve been saved. I have a spiritual birthday!

I kid you not; I remember one youth pastor encouraging us kids that if we didn’t know our spiritual birthday, say the sinner’s prayer right this minute, and make today your spiritual birthday. Then write it everywhere. He told the story of some guy who didn’t know his spiritual birthday, so he said the sinner’s prayer, wrote that day’s date on a post, hammered the post somewhere in his backyard, and every time he had doubts—’cause apparently he had some serious long-term memory problems—he just looked out the back window at his post. God forbid anything happen to his post; he’ll have to say the sinner’s prayer all over again.

See, this is why we have all these fruitless people running wild in the church. Because the real proof of salvation is fruit. Mt 7.15-20 Call Jesus “Lord” all you want; if you don’t do a single thing he teaches, he ain’t your Lord. Mt 7.21-23 But our Sunday school teachers didn’t teach us any such thing. You could live like an utter pagan, with zero interest in Jesus ever since you first said the sinner’s prayer some 60-some years ago, and they’ll still say, “Yep, it counts.” No it doesn’t.

The sinner’s prayer is like every rote prayer: It’s a valid prayer when we mean it. It’s useless hypocrisy when we don’t. If I ask God to take command of my life but never honestly meant it, God needn’t bother, and probably didn’t. If I swore I’d follow him forever but haven’t, I’m gonna suffer the consequences—the eternal consequences—of breaking my vow.

All these Christians who claim, “When’d you say the sinner’s prayer? That’s when you got saved”: They don’t know what they’re talking about. Nobody is saved by doing good deeds, Ep 2.9 and the sinner’s prayer is just another good deed. We’re saved by God’s grace; nothing else. Ep 2.8 And if God graciously hasn’t deposited the Holy Spirit in you, and the Spirit graciously isn’t producing fruit in you, it’s a good bet you’re not saved.

Easily rectified: Say the sinner’s prayer and mean it! But if you don’t mean it, you’re only praying more condemnation upon yourself.

The repentant have to want Jesus.

As I said earlier, a lot of people have become Christians because they’re hoping to avoid hell. Not because they legitimately want a relationship with Jesus. They really don’t want Jesus. They’re not planning to make any effort to follow him. They just want the no-strings-attached gospel: Say the magic words, get into heaven, and receive enough cheap grace to cover all the sins they’re still planning to commit.

So when we share Jesus with people, make sure they’re not one of those. I’m not saying we shouldn’t share Jesus with such people; share him with everyone! But don’t be surprised when such people say the sinner’s prayer… then a year later, they’re still as pagan as ever. They didn’t really want Jesus, so they still don’t have him. Kinda predictable.

But again: Share Jesus with everyone. ’Cause sometimes they half-heartedly say the sinner’s prayer, and God decides, “Oh, I’m not letting you goldbrick your way through my kingdom,” and works them, and after a bit of struggle (or after a really long, hard struggle) they turn into strong, devout Christians. Happens to a lot of ’em. Happened to me.

Either way, the sinner’s prayer is no guarantee you’re gonna wind up with a Christian success story. Don’t attribute special magical powers to it. It has none. Prayer works when we mean it, doesn’t when we don’t; the same is true of the sinner’s prayer. And that is all.